With pricing information released Thursday for its Windows 8 Pro Surface tablet, Microsoft's vision for that important mobile category is coming into view. With the picture more complete, the question is -- where does Microsoft see the Surface Pro fitting into the market?
That's a question many industry observers are now asking, since the pricing for the Windows 8 Pro tablet is relatively high for a tablet -- $899 for the 64 GB version and $999 for the 128 GB, without the keyboard cover.
Some observers immediately compared the Surface Pro to Apple's category-leading iPad. The 64 GB iPad, with Wi-Fi and 4G, is the most expensive configuration for that device, and runs about $830. The Surface Pro doesn't have 4G, comes with a stylus, and has a 128 GB model, among other differences. A high-end Android tablet, such as the Asus 64 GB Transformer Infinity, goes for about $600.
'PC AND a Tablet'
But, despite the name, looking at the Surface Pro as only a tablet misses Microsoft's intention. As Surface General Manager Panos Panay wrote Thursday on the Official Microsoft Blog, the Surface Pro is "a full PC AND a tablet."
That's because the Surface Pro runs Windows 8 Pro, and therefore can run all Windows 7 applications. In addition, it supports either a printed keyboard Touch Cover or a Type Cover with moveable keys, so that, with the cover attached, it can also readily operate as a laptop.
This new approach to tablets may be derived from Microsoft's increasingly do-it-yourself approach to hardware. On Wednesday, CEO Steve Ballmer told investors at the annual shareholders meeting that, while his company does have "good hardware partners," it is sometimes the case that "getting the innovation right across the seam of hardware and software is difficult unless you do both of them."
This new "do both of them" approach could be supported by reports this week -- if they turn out to be accurate -- that the technology giant is in the process of manufacturing its own Surface smartphone, to be released in first quarter.
While the pricing, application compatibility, and overall capability may suggest the Surface Pro is an Ultrabook in disguise, one factor compares somewhat unfavorably -- battery life.
Microsoft confirmed on Thursday that the Surface Pro will have a battery life about half that of the Surface tablet running Windows RT, which is estimated at eight to 10 hours.
That means four to five hours, at least in part because of the power requirements of the Surface Pro's Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor .
The RT uses the ARM-based quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3, which was designed specifically for battery-powered mobile devices -- but the RT tablet's popularity may be limited, especially for businesses, because it only runs applications specifically designed for RT, of which there are currently relatively few. The Surface RT is priced $200 to $400 less than the Surface Pro.
One of the key selling points of Ultrabooks has been their long battery life, often estimated at six to eight hours, and up to 10 in some cases.
Battery life aside, Microsoft is clearly positioning the Surface Pro as a kind of touchscreen Ultrabook with optional keyboard cover. It could also be compared to the hybrid tablet/laptops with Windows 8 that have emerged in the last few months, but with more emphasis on the tablet side. The Lenovo Yoga hybrid, for instance, runs about $1100.
Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group noted that the pricing for the Surface Pro is comparable to other Windows 8 tablets, and is somewhat less than an equivalent Ultrabook. However, he pointed out, tablets are often "bring your own devices" in businesses, and the current price point may well cause BYOD-ers some amount of hesitation.
But Enderle predicted that, as manufacturing capacity increases for this product, prices "will probably drop sometime next year," which could increase the Surface Pro's appeal to businesses.